Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 27-39)

Meg Munn MP and Ms Liz Chennells

24 NOVEMBER 2005

  Q27 Chairman: Good morning. We are very grateful to you for sparing the time to come and see us. We are also grateful for your letters and correspondence. You will know that we had evidence from the EOC last week and we will probably be referring to that during our questions. Lord Grenfell pointed out in his letter of 21 July: "We share the Government's commitment to the principles of equal opportunity and we would support any sound, practical and cost effective proposal that would add significant value to the work already being done by the Commission and Member States". I think that pretty well sums up where we are now, but we have been concerned at the value added of some European institutions and we do not want to endorse proposals that are not going to bring this added value with them. We still have some serious doubts about the merits of the proposal which is why we asked you to come to talk to us. We are studying your letter about the legal base and we will get in touch with you about that later on. As for this session, it is open to the public and it will be recorded for possible broadcasting or web casting. As well, a verbal transcript will be taken of your evidence which will be published on the Parliamentary website and as an annexe to the report on the inquiry which we will write. A few days after this session you will be sent a copy of that and if you wish to amend it in any way please do so as quickly as possible; we have to move fairly swiftly on this. If you feel that some issue has not been dealt with sufficiently or has not been dealt with clearly enough during the course of this session of course you may submit supplementary evidence; in fact we would be delighted to hear from you. You should have a copy of members' interests on the table. The last comment I make is about acoustics. The acoustics in this room are poor so if you could speak up that would be excellent and make life easier for everybody. If you wish to make a short opening statement, could you precede that by giving us your name and official title for the record and introducing Ms Chennells who is alongside you.

  Meg Munn: Thank you. Good morning and thank you, my Lord Chairman, and members of the Committee for inviting me today. I will make a short statement. My name is Meg Munn. I am the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality. I am delighted to be here today to give evidence and to continue a discussion which has been very useful so far in developing our thinking on the European Gender Institute. As we have said before in correspondence with the Committee, the UK Government welcomes the Commission's proposal for a European Institute for Gender Equality and we support the principle of setting up this Institute. I believe it will raise the profile of gender equality across Europe and provide a more coherent approach to gathering research and information at European Union level. By providing the relevant institutions and authorities of the communities within the Member States with easily accessible objective, reliable and comparative information on gender equality it will give greater visibility to this issue and be an important addition to the existing institutional framework. Most of all, I think the Institute will be beneficial to Europe in helping Member States share good practice. Commission colleagues would like to see the Institute established by 2007 and in our Presidency role we have been working to help them achieve this. Negotiations are continuing at the moment and we are working with the Austrians in the European Parliament to progress the dossier. I am accompanied today by Liz Chennells.

  Ms Chennells: I am Director of Gender Equality and Social Justice and I am an official from Women and Equality at the Department of Trade and Industry.

  Q28  Chairman: You have stated your support for this proposal. I wonder if you can go into a little more detail about the practical results which you are expecting or hoping the Institute to achieve and which are not being done already. I must say, it came as a bit of a surprise to me when we had a representative from the EOC here last week how little apparent collaboration there is between the existing national bodies dealing with this subject. That may be part of the problem and this may be part of a solution. Perhaps you could give us your thoughts on that.

  Meg Munn: Certainly. The Institute will be able to provide that important evidence to policy makers in the European Commission and, more importantly, I think, the Member States on how best to achieve what is the Community objective of equality between men and women. It will act as that information hub, a centre for pulling together work that is going on on gender equality—independently currently—in Member States. As you have just rightly said, that is not currently being done. It is proposed that the Institute will carry out data collection from both Member States' governments and also their social partners on topics that are being considered under the programme of indicators which were agreed as part of the Beijing platform for action. You may be aware that as part of our Presidency we have been very keen to continue to progress that rather than to have any new proposals or indicators. It will do that analysis across the European Union looking in a much more organised and professional way at the statistics that are available. I certainly believe that the Institute will enable proper discussion between Member States as a result of that much better dissemination of information on outcomes which different policies are achieving, perhaps tackling similar problems but maybe in different ways. For example, we have information about women in political power but it is currently quite ad hoc and fairly haphazard.

  Q29  Chairman: Ms Chennells, you were involved in formulating UK policy on the Gender Access to Goods and Services Directive.

  Ms Chennells: Yes.

  Q30  Chairman: You gave evidence to our inquiry last year. Had the Gender Institute been in existence at that time would it have made a contribution to the work that you were doing, do you think?

  Ms Chennells: I think it would have provided cross-European evidence. I do not think it is envisaged that the Institute, as conceived currently, will be a policy making instrument of its own. It is still anticipated that policy will be proposed by the Commission in discussion with the Council and then agreed with the Council and with Parliament. Yes, it would have helped in evidence base but, no, it would not have determined the policy.

  Q31  Chairman: That is not its role.

  Ms Chennells: No.

  Q32  Baroness Greengross: I am an enthusiast for equality but I am going to do the sceptical bit now. Is it necessary to have a separate institute to do this rather than, for example, EUROSTAT taking on this role (if it does not fully do it now) or one of the other very many institutes which are Europe-wide? They could have more gender specialists in the relevant Commission Directorate or contract research from Member States' institutions, something like the Dublin Centre. Why is it necessary to have another one, given that there are national EOC type bodies in most countries?

  Meg Munn: The problem which is identified is that at present there is no single European Union body that collects and disseminates information on gender equality that is easily accessible or that draws specifically on good practice from Member States. There are other issues as well about raising the visibility of issues on gender equality as well as developing good practice examples of how, within Member States, gender equality can be mainstreamed, which is the aim that I would want to see for all policies on gender equality. If you mainstream it then it is not something that you do as an afterthought. I am very clear that the work of the Institute should not duplicate the work that is done by EUROSTAT and there will need to be a link between the Institute and EUROSTAT because EUROSTAT will provide a good source of data for some of the work of the Institute. EUROSTAT's remit is much broader than gender equality and it focuses more on the whole range of topics and putting hierarchies together, collecting tables for various themes and trying to ensure that there is a harmonisation of statistics across the European Union so that information across a whole range of topics is being considered in the same way. Obviously different Member States collect information on different issues in different ways and they need to make sure that they are comparing like with like and looking over things at a period of time. The Commission currently sponsors a number of projects which are comparative studies seeking to show good practice and promote gender equality. The Institute would provide a central place for this information to be coordinated and made easily accessible to Member State governments as well as to equality bodies, universities, academic institutions et cetera. My concern is that there is a lot of work going on in Member States, sometimes funded by European money, where outcomes are being analysed but that is not then being shared. We now have 25 Member States who could all be trying to achieve similar things—or even a number of them trying to achieve similar things—but they are not learning from the experience of other countries and what they have done, and not getting the value from the European money that has already been spent.

  Q33  Earl of Dundee: The EOC tell us that they are in favour of one integrated European body to deal with all equality strands and they suggest that the European Fundamental Rights Agency ought to be the right body for this. Is that idea surely not more consistent with UK Government policy which favours an integrated approach towards equality issues? Should not, therefore, the Gender Institute proposal be put on hold until the European Fundamental Rights Agency is further progressed?

  Meg Munn: Certainly that is an approach with which I have a great deal of sympathy and it is something I was certainly keen to look at as an option at the beginning. One of the problems we have in relation to the European Union is that the European Union's competence is not the same across all the strands of equality issues. For example, under the Directive implementing the equal treatment between women and men in goods and services the equality in that area does not exist in all Member States so actually having a focus on gender equality will help Member States to develop so that there is greater equality across the European Union. As you rightly say, our policy is that we have a Bill which has just had its second reading on Monday of developing one commission for equality and human rights here and it is important for us to consider those issues. Having a separate institute does not mean that you cannot work with other areas and look at the interplay between issues of discrimination that affect women and also perhaps a particular ethnic minority. It is not something that stands alone, not talking to anybody else about what it is doing. I am insisting that this body is mandated to work very closely with other relevant agencies. The draft proposal from the Commission does reflect that view; it makes it clear that the Institute should ensure appropriate coordination with all those relevant agencies in order to avoid any duplication and guarantee best possible use of resources. A member of the Fundamental Rights Agency will be invited to the management board meetings of the Institute when they are both set up and we want to ensure that there is cooperation both ways.

  Q34  Earl of Dundee: So your view is that the Gender Institute could build up good working links which would not be inconsistent with the other bodies to which it related. However, if the proposal for a European Fundamental Rights Agency were to be progressed—which it has not as yet been—to see if it can do these things, then we might all be saved the need of having another body. That, of course, could avoid double-handling. Therefore in the first place should not a chance be given to the European Fundamental Rights Agency to see what it can do?

  Meg Munn: If you look at the development in this country, we started out with separate institutes. We have the Equal Opportunities Commission, Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and they have developed their work in that area and there are now strong policies, there is a strong focus on that. One of the issues that I am handling in terms of moving to a Commission of Equality in Human Rights is ensuring that there is confidence that the focus on those particular issues will not be lost in the new Commission. I think there is a parallel here in that by having a separate Gender Institute it does give that focus for 25 states on the issues of gender equality, recognising that the states that are being run on time, do have programmes of work and do things in different areas and we have new ones coming in, it will give that real focus to gender equality and raise its profile and give a very important signal as to how important it is that this should be mainstreamed into all the policies within the European Union because that is one of the fundamental issues that the European Union is trying to get to grips with.

  Q35  Earl of Dundee: Do you then consider that if progressed the Gender Institute would cover aspects of gender equality which would otherwise be missed?

  Meg Munn: Yes, and bring together information on work that is being done across Member States. One of the benefits of having the European Union is that Member States can share good practice and learn from each other and if money—whether national government funding or European funding—has been put into developing projects which are being successful, not to share that information across Member States is a loss.

  Q36  Lord Trefgarne: Are you sure that a pan European institute like this is the best way to take this matter forward? Is there not a risk, particularly perhaps among the new nations of the EU, that this will be seen as yet another mechanism for imposing white Christian views on minority groups? For example, in Muslim communities they have a totally different approach to gender equality from the one that we have.

  Meg Munn: No, I do not think that. I think it is not a policy making body; it is a body which will bring together information about various different approaches and arguably, as you say, dealing with the issue of Muslim women and how states work in terms of gender equality is something which could very, very usefully be shared across Europe. As we become countries where we have a whole range of nationalities coming from both within and outside the European Union I think sharing that good practice and looking at the way that different societies have approached issues of gender equality could be very important. As I say, I think the fundamental issue is that this is not a policy making body, this is an Institute which will enable people who make policy—whether that is decided at European level or at Member State level—to have greater access to how work has been done and how funds which have been deployed precisely to try to achieve gender equality have either met or not met their objectives.

  Q37  Baroness Gale: You wrote a letter to us on 17 July saying that you had taken informal soundings from other government departments and from the Equal Opportunities Commission. When we met with them last week they told us they had not been directly consulted by the British Government. I wonder if you could explain this apparent discrepancy in the Equal Opportunities Commission believing they had not been consulted and you believing they had been, and could you tell us how much consultation has taken place and with whom and when the consultations took place?

  Meg Munn: The Equal Opportunities Commission and government officials both, as you are probably aware, sit on the Equality Advisory Committee so we will have heard their views in that forum as well. My officials actually contacted the Equal Opportunities Commission via e-mail back in April 2004 asking them for their perspective on the European Institute for Gender Equality. From that e-mail they welcomed the proposal and explained that their views had been sought back in 2001 by researchers carrying out the Commission's feasibility study, so it actually goes back over some considerable time. In addition to that, officials and indeed I myself have regular contact with people from the Equal Opportunities Commission in many different contexts and we are confident from that that there is no real difference of approach between us with perhaps exceptions around issues on the budget. In terms of other consultations, we have not specifically as Government undertaken consultations; the consultations have been carried out by the Commission itself and, as I understand it, they consulted several UK organisations. We accept the assessment that the Commission and the European Parliament have made that this body will be widely welcomed and used by the academic and also the non-governmental organisation sectors. We have had consultations with other government departments who have an interest in that, such as the Department for Constitutional Affairs, who obviously have an interest in the Fundamental Rights Agency which we were talking about just a few minutes ago, and also through Cabinet Office cross-departmental meetings.

  Q38  Baroness Gale: What surprised us as a Committee was to hear that you had not had direct consultation with the Equal Opportunities Commission. Although you say you had the consultation through e-mails and discussions, you did not have a face-to-face consultation where you both sat down together, bearing in mind the Equal Opportunities Commission is one of our leading bodies on these issues.

  Ms Chennells: If the Committee remembers, Tijs Broeke, who came last week, would have been the number two person here because Amanda Ariss who was due to speak was unwell. I think she probably would have recalled this exchange that we had and although "by e-mail" sounds as though it is casual actually an enormous amount of government business is now done by e-mail. Once we got the clear view from them at an early stage that they supported this proposal then you are right, we have not had a formal consultation since then. However, it has come up a number of times in our informal meetings in relation to a number of other areas. We do have good working relationships, as the Minister says, with the Equal Opportunities Commission. I would not like the Committee to feel anxious that we have not discussed this properly with the EOC.

  Q39  Lord Trefgarne: The Commission brought this proposal forward; who else did they consult?

  Ms Chennells: The Commission did a research project to underpin it and they consulted a number of equality bodies in different Member States and a number of academic institutions in different Members States, a small number of whom—five or six—were UK based, including the Equal Opportunities Commission.


 
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